Coming home on a flight from the West Coast last week, I was about to deplane when we were all asked to remain seated while the family members of a Marine killed in Afghanistan and an accompanying guard, who were escorting his body back home, exited the plane. All of the remaining passengers sat there in constricted spaces, watching the family troop by, followed by the accompanying guard in full uniform, every crease in his outfit contrasting with the loose clothing and drab colors everywhere else.
I watched the coffin come out of the hold and, on the way out of the airport, I saw the hearse, a line of cars, another Marine, and police on motorcycles waiting in a parking lot, their ordered ranks again contrasting with the sea of asphalt and the faceless, grey terminal building.
On my departure to the coast on the same trip, I sat in my seat before take-off watching a very different operation: Surrounded by armed police, agents of some sort were loading stack after stack of orange bags—I assume containing banknotes—out of the airplane and onto a truck. Here again, there was contrast: between the embedded value everywhere and the treasure in its plastic wrapping; and between the passage of bags and the dense packing of the money into an armored car.
We see this kind of contrast every time we go into the airport and pass through security gates, almost all of which are built—usually with little grace or elegance—in an existing building designed for flow. Similarly, we pull over to let a funeral procession pass or note the faces of the fallen between the latest news in our daily paper.
It was the appearance at such close proximity of these exceptions—these reminders of our mortality and the rituals with which we surround them, as well as the confrontation with plain and simple money—that made the blankness and lack of definition in most of our public spaces all the more obvious.
We have no place for rituals in either our daily lives or the buildings that house them. In the past, we built separate spaces for rituals: churches, grand bank buildings or eloquent city halls, monuments to the fallen. In our secular society—in which we pull money from ATMs and attend churches in suburban malls, in which all activities are rationed out and rationalized—memory has to happen where it can. Flowers along the side of the road, a memorial page on Facebook, or a photograph of a soldier posted in a window.
The easy answer would be to throw a classicist cloak over everything, squirreling daily life away into the poché while marking and framing important events with columns and colonnades. The opposite of the (rather expensive) traditionalist strategy would be to abstract everything, retreating into complete fluidity, limbo, and loss of meaning.
We need something in-between. We need a place for grief and greed to happen and be acknowledged. We need interiors that are less bland and fluid, and exteriors that mark space. We need reality in all its facets, from the mundane to the meaningful, back in architecture.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.